Aboard Trump’s Terrifying North Korea Roller Coaster

Posted May 26, 2018 12:10 p.m. EDT

This isn’t diplomacy that President Donald Trump is practicing with Kim Jong Un. It’s a roller-coaster ride — and it may be leading us to a more dangerous period in relations with North Korea.

Trump again proved his exceptional talent on Thursday by following his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal with his cancellation of the June 12 summit meeting with Kim; few presidents manage such diplomatic ineptitude over a four-year term, let alone in a single month. Then a day later, Trump suggested that the meeting could be rescheduled after all — maybe even back on June 12.

Man, those inscrutable Occidentals!

I’ve been covering and visiting North Korea since the 1980s, and this may be the moment of greatest risk and opportunity. It is maddening that the U.S. is handling the moment so chaotically.

North Korea’s initial response to the cancellation was calm and conciliatory, presumably because Kim wants the summit and because he wishes to appear more statesmanlike than Trump. If restraint doesn’t succeed soon, then the risk is that we’re back to confrontation — and if so, look out.

Kim may choose to create a new crisis, perhaps by conducting a missile test or an atmospheric nuclear test (which could send radiation drifting toward the U.S.).

The U.S. could respond to new tensions by sending B-1 bombers off the coast of North Korea. If North Korea scrambled aircraft or fired anti-aircraft missiles, we could very quickly have an enormous escalation.

Every president since Nixon — except Trump — has realized that military options are too dangerous to employ. That’s especially true today, when North Korea apparently has the capacity to use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons against Seoul, Tokyo and perhaps Los Angeles. If nuclear weapons are used, researchers say, 1 million people could die on the first day of a conflict.

Yet Trump has a swagger and impulsiveness that make even Pentagon officials deeply nervous. He has a Kim-like appetite for brinkmanship.

In short, we may be headed for a game of chicken, with Trump and Kim at the wheel. And the rest of us are all in the back seat.

If the summit is not rescheduled, we’ll be worse off than before because it will be difficult for Trump to return to his policy of strangling North Korea economically. China has already been quietly relaxing sanctions, and South Korea may not have the stomach for maintaining strong sanctions, either. That might make the military toolbox more appealing to Trump.

Some Republicans have praised Trump for his North Korea diplomacy, and there’s been talk about him winning a Nobel Peace Prize. That’s preposterous. Just look at how we got here.

Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric didn’t particularly intimidate North Korea, but it terrified South Korea, which feared it would be collateral damage in a new Korean war. So South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, shrewdly used the Olympics to undertake a peace mission to bring the U.S. and North Korea together, flattering Trump to make this happen. This was commendable on Moon’s part; he’s the one who genuinely deserves the Nobel Peace Prize if this works out.

Then Trump rashly accepted the idea of a face-to-face meeting on June 12, without adequate preparations and apparently based on the delusion that North Korea would simply hand over its nuclear weapons. Still, talking is better than bombing, and there was some prospect that the talks could set in motion a process in which North Korea would freeze nuclear and missile tests.

Kim’s apparent destruction of his nuclear test site was a genuinely positive step, notes Siegfried Hecker, an expert on the North Korean nuclear program at Stanford University. It was then a slap in the face for Kim when, just hours later, Trump canceled the June 12 meeting

National Security Adviser John Bolton seems to have played a key role in the cancellation, and he presumably will be an obstacle to setting a new date — for Bolton’s solution to almost any problem seems to be to start a war.

Bolton is smart and well informed, and he hit the trifecta: On Iraq, Iran and North Korea alike, he has a perfect record of disastrous decisions. He was a champion of the invasion of Iraq, he helped kill nuclear deals with Iran both 14 years ago and again this year, and he helped destroy an agreement with North Korea in 2002 in addition to derailing the latest summit plan.

If there were a Nobel Prize for Distinguished Warmongering, Bolton would be a shoo-in.

As for Trump, he seems to have a cartoon understanding of international relations, thinking that a couple of great men (one with orange hair) walk into a room, solve a problem together, and then go pick up their Nobel Prize. He discounts expertise, skips briefings and blithely antagonizes allies.

It’s telling that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t get that Kim Jong Un’s family name is Kim; Secretary Mike referred to him as Chairman Un.

Both Trump and Kim would still like to make a summit happen. So I’m still hoping for the best while fearing for the worst.

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

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